Ireland has been hit by a wave of clerical sex-abuse scandals.
No one now doubts that children in the care of priests and religious were abused. The trouble is that an atmosphere has been created in which every allegation is believed, and in which it is easy for anyone to destroy the lives of innocent people.
Let me give a few examples. The most recent one involved the case of Willie Delaney. Willie was a resident of Letterfrack Reform School in Galway, run by the Christian Brothers. In the middle of last month his body was exhumed. The discovery followed allegations from other former residents that he had suffered a vicious blow to the head from a teacher while in class.
The case received extensive media coverage. Most newspapers did not wait for the results of the autopsy before pronouncing judgment; they declared in front-page stories that Willie had died of foul play just as alleged. They also ignored or played down glaring inconsistencies in the testimonies of the “witnesses.”
When the investigation revealed that young Willie had died of natural causes, newspapers buried their coverage of the development deep inside their pages. Thanks to this selective journalism, a year from now, when people talk about how Willie Delaney died, most will say that he was murdered by a Christian Brother.
Of course, this was not the first time the Irish press has uncritically accepted allegations of abuse. Nor will it be the last.
A much more serious case involved a former member of the Mercy Sisters called Nora Wall. She, along with a man called Paul McCabe, were accused of raping a girl at a children's home. As the trial proceeded, newspapers ran headlines about the “monster nun.” Based on the testimony of the alleged victim, the pair were found guilty and Wall was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Within days of the sentence being delivered, grave irregularities in the “evidence” were found and the sentence was quashed. No newspaper apologized to her, or to their readers, for their shoddy coverage of the case.
Then we had the case of a Northern Ireland priest, Father Gerard Green. He stood trial for allegedly abusing a teenage boy. Once more the newspapers declared him guilty and branded him a monster. The trial collapsed, once again due to irregularities in the so-called evidence. Once again the papers did not eat humble pie for doing their utmost to destroy a man's reputation.
I could give other examples of false allegations. The problem is that they do nothing to make newspapers question the witch hunt that is being conducted in this country against priests and nuns accused of child abuse. Every allegation continues to be taken at face value as the normal journalistic guidelines of skepticism, balance and objectivity are cast aside.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that lurid headlines about child abuse, and especially abuse at the hands of priests and religious, sell newspapers.
The second is that there was a time when no allegation of abuse was believed. Because of this, many people, journalists included, feel compelled to compensate for what they see as the country's former lack of compassion by accepting every allegation at face value.
A third and more sinister reason is that the child-abuse scandals are a weapon which can be used against the Church. And so it is claimed that there is something in the nature of the Catholic Church which attracts child abusers. That something is variously patriarchy, the Church's “culture of secrecy” or its teaching on sex and morality. Connected to this is the claim that celibacy so distorts sexuality that some people become pedophiles as a result.
It is then concluded that the only way to truly protect children against child abusers is to abolish the rule of celibacy and to reform the Church, root and branch. This means allowing women priests, “sharing power” with the laity and embracing the sexual revolution.
What is sad is that many Catholics, and not just disaffected ones, have internalized this criticism, quite ignoring the fact that here, as in other parts of the world, some children in some group homes have been abused — and the abusers' trails show no pattern of affiliation with one church over another, or with any church at all.
In an Irish context, what is particularly galling about our readiness to accept every allegation of abuse at face value is that we appear to have learned nothing at all from the experience of Irish people at the hands of the British legal system in the 1970s.
At that time, because of the atmosphere created by IRA bombing campaigns in England, any Irish person living in England who had a Northern accent and came from a Catholic, working class, nationalist background stood in danger of being accused of membership of the IRA.
This led to famous miscarriages of justice involving the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. These individuals served years in prison for crimes they never committed; such was the atmosphere in Britain at the time they were convicted. There was a clamor for convictions, a desire for retribution, because some Irish people were indeed engaged in bombing campaigns.
The examples of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four should have made us aware that it is especially when there is a demand for retribution that we need to hold on most strongly to the presumption of innocence. Unfortunately, in the case of priests and religious accused of child abuse, this need has been completely forgotten. For the sake of those who stand falsely accused today, we must do all we can to rekindle Ireland's collective memory.
David Quinn is editor of The Irish Catholic in Dublin.